At 5 PM on the first Monday of every month, some 200 military veterans gather at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in downtown Santa Cruz. About three quarters of them are Baby Boomers – Vietnam-era vets now in their 70s -- along with several remaining elders who served in World War II.
At these meetings, the former servicemen and women find comradery, community and a voucher for a free gift bag of medical marijuana – given away by Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance’s Veteran’s Compassion Program.
Leave no one behind
SCVA was established in 2010 by two veterans, Jason Sweatt and Aaron Newsom, who were disillusioned with the pharmaceutical-centric treatments they received through the VA. Growing and using cannabis, they found, was a healthier alternative for coping with the physical and mental stresses of post-military life.
The pair applied the rigor, integrity, discipline and attention to detail they had cultivated in the military to growing cannabis and their business. And it was the warrior ethos - to never leave a fallen comrade behind - that inspired them to launch their compassionate care initiative.
From the start, SCVA allocated a portion of its crop for free distribution to veterans – many of them low-income with service-related disabilities – who registered as members of their medical marijuana collective.
Initially, Sweatt and Newsom delivered their medical marijuana care packages directly to the veterans’ homes. But when the business and the number of beneficiaries grew, the distribution program shifted to the VFW Hall.
Compassionate distribution of marijuana medicine
Now, SCVA gives away 3-4 pounds of cannabis flower in ¼ ounce packages every month. Other growers and manufacturers in the region often donate surplus or about-to-expire products that are also included in the compassion bags.
California has a long and venerated history of giving away medical marijuana to the ill and vulnerable. Marijuana activist Dennis Peron and his angel-in-arms, Brownie Mary, handed out pot to marginalized AIDs patients in the 1990s, leading up to the Compassionate Care Act that legalized cannabis for medical purposes. In Santa Cruz, the Wo/men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana has been providing medicine at low or no charge to the terminally ill since the early 1990s, and SCVA used their program as a model.
Helping the forgotten generation
William Horne is a fit and vital 77-year-old Vietnam-era veteran who regularly attends SCVA’s monthly meetings. After a toxic divorce left him depressed and anxiety-ridden, he decided to take responsibility for his health, and opened up to cannabis.
“Growing up, it was not my drug of choice.” But Horne openly acknowledges that this form of plant medicine has helped him recover from multiple surgeries, including two hip replacements and a full knee replacement. After his most recent operation, he got rid of the opioids given to him at the VA hospital, and returned to using cannabis to support his recovery.
Horne also reports that cannabis has helped him emotionally and spiritually – to overcome anxiety and depression and experience a softening and release of anger, which he observes in other vets as well.
In the Santa Cruz veteran’s community, Horne has found a circle of like-minded friends who are dealing with similar issues. “At the meeting, the group is mostly my generation. And some of the older ones are really struggling – they feel like they belong to a forgotten generation.”
According to a JAMA Psychiatry study from 2015, over a quarter-million Vietnam vets are still suffering from PTSD 40 years after the end of the conflict, and one-third of them are contending with major depression. Meanwhile, the VA continues to oppose the use of cannabis as a therapeutic modality – a position that will surely not change as long as cannabis retains its current Schedule 1 classification.
But if and when that changes, SCVA will be ready. According to Seth Smith, a Navy veteran and SCVA’s newest partner, they are prepared to contract with the VA to supply enough cannabis medicine to meet the needs of the entire veteran community of Northern California.
In the meantime, veterans like Horne and others are challenging the establishment and medicating themselves.
Horne: “It was my generation, the hippies, who were all about questioning authority. Compassion, loving, caring, and making a difference - that was what the ‘us generation’ was all about.”
From collective to dispensary
SCVA was originally founded as a cultivation and wholesale operation, distributing 15 strains of organic flower to dispensaries throughout California. Eventually, they expanded into manufacturing, using their own cultivated material to produce a line of concentrates, tinctures and topicals. But thanks in part to its compassionate care program – one of the few left in the state – the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors granted SCVA a dispensary license, and in 2017, the collective opened its first retail outlet.
Smith: “We knew that under Prop 64 (the California measure which went into effect in 2018 legalizing adult-use cannabis and instituting tax and regulatory reforms for cannabis sales) we would no longer be able to distribute donations to our veteran compassion program directly unless we had our own licensed dispensary, so we worked diligently and loudly to make that happen. Many dispensaries in California have social responsibility or community giveback programs where they donate a portion of their profits to local nonprofits...ours is the only dispensary in the state since Prop 64 was enacted to maintain a compassionate care program for a specific medical population ensuring monthly safe access to medicinal cannabis free of charge. And we still pay taxes on that cannabis. But we can’t qualify for VA small business or home loans.”
The small, spare SCVA dispensary is located in the mid-county village of Soquel, behind one of the doors of a long, non-descript building that appears neither commercial nor residential. You don’t need to be a veteran to patronize the dispensary; anyone 21 or over, (18 and over with a valid doctor’s recommendation), is welcome. But veterans, first-responders and seniors receive a hefty 25% discount at the register.
So far, the dispensary’s customer population has skewed heavily towards the over-55 crowd. Especially popular is the collective’s flagship strain, Kosher Kush, which Smith contends could put Ativan out of business.
Badge of Honor
While suicide rates among veterans are disproportionately high, Smith notes with pride that SCVA has not lost a single member to self-harm – a testament to the healing powers of the medicine and the community support the collective provides.
And while capitalism continues to outstrip compassion in California’s rampaging cannabis economy, at Santa Cruz Veteran’s Alliance serving with honor remains a higher value.